Given that Sunday is Mother’s Day in the U.S., I’d like to celebrate some of the quirky things that I’ve learned from my mom. She seeded my culinary interests when I was a child and as now as an adult, I trade new discoveries with her. In fact, she frequently contributes her knowledge to the Mama Says page on this site!
Mẹ (how to say Mom in Vietnamese) did and still does certain things in her kitchen that my siblings and I used to and kinda still frustrate over. For example, she saved every plastic container and bag for reuse; I think she may have reused the foil in the above photo. Nowadays, we call that green living, but in 1980, my sister Tasha and I would sing Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Have to Live Like a Refugee” to Mom who would pretend to ignore us. But as time passes, I’ve come to realize that she’s got a way about her (I’ll stop with the pop song references; and btw, that’s a Billy Joel song). I better appreciate her kitchen quirks that we often poked fun at. Here are a few standouts:
Storing dishes in the dishwasher
“I don’t trust the dishwasher to get dishes clean,” Mom says. We grew up washing all the dishes by hand, and to this day, my mother’s dishwasher has never been operated. She uses it to store clean dishes. The countertop dish rack is seldom empty. Though in my house, the dishwasher is one of my favorite kitchen appliances, I revert to hand washing dishes whenever I’m at Mom’s house. It’s nice when we have a big family meal and my sisters and I work together, gossiping and joking around as we scrub, rinse, and dry.
Keeping a special tub for food trash
It’s not like Mom is a Luddite. She was using the first generation of food processors when we still lived in Vietnam. But as for the modern kitchen wonder – the garbage disposal, she never runs it. She keeps a 2 quart plastic container near the kitchen sink and lines it with a plastic produce bag (which she’s recycled) into which she deposits all the refuse from kitchen prep and the table. That keeps stinky trash, such as shrimp shells, away from regular trash. It’s an efficient way to work and when I’m prepping food, there’s a produce bag nearby for collecting wet trash. Extraneous raw produce is put into a 2-quart plastic tub for green-recycling.
5/10/09 Clarification from Mom: "I actually started using the tub method because I didn't want to repeatedly move wet trash from the counter to the trash can and worry or clean up after drips."
Freezing as much as possible
My mother can put a spread together for 12 with 24-hour notice because she owns 2 freezers. Everything is carefully labeled with freezer tape. Even the regular side-by-side refrigerator’s freezer is full. The freezer is essential to her battery of equipment and though she can be brazen about things that she freezes (even banh cuon rice rolls), she’s always ready to feed you when you come in the door. As for me, I have a standup freezer in the garage for my stocks, frozen shrimp, char siu pork, etc.
5/10/09 Clarification from Mom: "I just got another freezer so now there are 3 of them. If you fill the freezer it runs more efficiently!"
Venting the house with fans
Volume Vietnamese cooking was de rigeur for our family and my mother figured out early on that a series of 3 stand-up fans set up between the kitchen and furthest open window would effectively suck out the kitchen heat and odors. Summers were particularly noisy for us but we always ate well. Though I have a powerful exhaust, I occasionally run a portable fan to air out the house.
Protecting the kitchen countertop with plastic
You know the plastic runner meant for protect heavily-trafficked carpeting? They have the nubs on the under side. My mother uses it for protecting the kitchen countertops from dirt. She and my father selected 3 x 3-inch tiles for the kitchen and the numerous grout lines were a pain to clean. Since she protected the hallway carpet in our house with the runners, why not put them on the counters? For years, all the counters were covered but today, she only has the plastic on the most-used part of the kitchen. I chose extra large tiles for our kitchen countertop.
I’m certainly not going to become my mother, but I have taken many of her kitchen wisdom to heart. I’m surely not alone so feel free to share your experiences.